Re-Integrating Founders: Becoming Normal Again
When you first start a company you have to work hard. It’s a rather all-consuming grind. There’s no way around it.
In the early days the founders do everything in the business, ranging from menial administration to the highest-level strategic decision-making.
As the company scales the team expands and other folks absorb many of those roles and specialize in doing them well. The net result is founders handoff most of their day-to-day tasks. While that sounds great, it’s a strange feeling. Additional effort by the founder no longer correlates with greater success.
While initially founders are required to work both hard and smart, over time, they have responsibility for fewer projects. Working hard is no longer smart.
While that sounds ideal, it’s a very challenging for many founders. I know from personal experience.
I personally toiled through a series of startups over the course of more than a decade before getting traction. It was a hard time, but I grew accustomed to the challenge. It became a way of life. I became the grind. Leaving the office late and working on the weekends became mainstays.
While my peers were building relationships, frolicking around the world or developing affinity for sports teams, I was building. Brick-by-brick.
I suppose the longer you’re in the foxhole, the more accustomed to it you become. I assume founders who landed on success quickly may not have acclimated to the fight as much as I did. And I suppose the more acclimated you become the more change hurts.
As the heavy lifting on the front lines is increasingly taken over by strong hands founders are often left ill-prepared for the transition back to “civilian” life. I really struggled with this. Without well-developed hobbies and social groups we don’t know what to do with ourselves. And, worse yet, to those who have been in battle for too long, civilian life can seem less meaningful than the act of hard-fought progress.
Personally, I don’t think I’ve been able to fully become a “civilian” yet. I struggled to find hobbies that maintain my attention. So, I cheated. As the founder of a foundry (a company that starts companies) my partners and I went on to fill my excess with dozens of new companies. I still don’t have a real hobby. The only thing I fill my time with is family, friends and startups (and I try to work with most of my friends).
For founders who are sitting at the helm of their companies there may not be such an easy way to cheat. Their organizations depend on their day-to-day involvement in a way that prevents them from lighting up more companies. They can’t get back to the grind -- the system won’t let them. Free time can only be filled with hobbies, social activities and the like.
I’ve watched a few founders successfully make the transition. The key: they picked a horse and jumped on. They picked up tennis, new social groups, fantasy football and other activities. They just dove in. Better late than never.
I’m sure there’s a psychologist out there who could easily diagnose many founders with some form of disorder. Maybe we were obsessed before we started our first company and the act of building brought it out of us. Or, the isolation and intensity of being a founder changes us. But, either way for many once they’ve become a founder there’s no easy way back to being “normal.” But then again, who wants to be normal?